50 fewer MPs: Challenges for the constituency boundary review

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Work on the parliamentary constituency boundary review is set to begin next March. At a seminar jointly organised by The Constitution Unit and the House of Commons Library on October 27 Tony Bellringer, the Secretary to the Boundary Commission for England, outlined the boundary review process and Ron Johnston spoke about some of the challenges likely to be faced. Daniel Goldstein and Matthew Rice provide an overview.

As a result of the Parliamentary Voting System and Constituencies Act of 2011 a review of parliamentary constituency boundaries is now required to occur every five years.  After the first of these was abandoned in 2013, following an amendment to what became the Electoral Registration and Administration Act , the first official revised review is scheduled for completion in 2018. On October 27 the Secretary to the Boundary Commission for England, Tony Bellringer, and the foremost academic expert on constituency reviews, Professor Ron Johnston, came to Parliament to discuss the process and implications of the review at an event jointly organised by The Constitution Unit and the House of Commons Library’s Parliament and Constitution Centre.

Law and process

Tony Bellringer began by explaining how the constituency review process has changed since the 2011 law.  Prior to 2011, a review occurred every eight to 12 years.  While preserving constituency stability, this timetable permitted the size of the electorate in each constituency to vary significantly over time.  One advantage of that structure was that it allowed the Boundary Commission for England (BCE) to work over time across the country with a small, experienced staff.  Reviews are now regularly scheduled for every five years.  This better mitigates drift but carries the cost of more frequent constituency change.  Further, interim reviews are now prohibited, compressing work into the two-and-a-half years prior to a review deadline.  This presents budgeting as well as staff retention issues for the BCE.

Continuing on, Tony addressed the most eye-catching feature of the 2011 Act: fixing the number of constituencies to 600 and thus cutting 50 MPs from the current 650.  Under the previous system there had been no set target.  Moreover, the previous law had deliberately over-represented Scotland, Wales, and Northern Ireland in the distribution of constituencies. Given subsequent devolution, this has been removed.  Drawing on each nation’s current share of the total UK electorate, the Sainte-Laguë formula will now be used to determine the distribution of 596 constituencies (with four – two on the Isle of Wight and two in Scotland –  excluded from the calculations: under the Act the Orkney and Shetland Isles form one constituency and Na h-Eileanan an Iar another, and the Boundary Commission for England has to recommend the division of the Isle of Wight into two constituencies).  The tables below show the current (2010) distribution alongside the aborted 2011 distribution and projected 2015 distributions based on this revised method.

Distribution

Tony noted that before 2011, the BCE retained the discretion to balance several factors (e.g. the inconvenience of change and local geography) alongside the need to equalise the size of constituencies as far as possible. However, it is now mandatory that each constituency be within +/- five per cent of the national electoral quota – that is, the number of voters in each constituency if all constituencies had a precisely equal number of voters.  While the BCE can practice flexibility within this constraint, the mandatory quota is of most importance in shaping constituencies.

Finally, Tony outlined the BCE’s timetable for meeting the 2018 deadline.  Currently, the BCE is collecting data for digital maps of polling districts.  Relying on these data, the BCE will meet with the boundary commissions from Wales, Scotland, and Northern Ireland to determine and publish in early 2016 the electoral quota and the number of constituencies granted to each nation.  The BCE will then publish the proposed constituencies in September 2016 and the first statutory consultation period, including public hearings, will subsequently be held.  Tony revealed that following poorly attended public hearings arranged far in advance of the consultation period for the postponed review, the BCE will this time wait before deciding where to hold public hearings.  Initial responses to the proposal will be published online, followed by a second consultation period at around Easter 2017.  The outcome will be a revised proposal published in approximately October 2017.  There will then be a third consultation period with public hearings, with the final review and recommendations published and submitted to the government in September 2018.  It will be the government’s responsibility to then draft the secondary legislation required to implement the recommendations.

The price of equality?

Ron Johnston began his talk by explaining that the boundary review will utilise electoral data from 2015. Following the government’s decision to bring forward the deadline for individual voter registration to December 2015 instead of December 2016, this will potentially result in more than one million voters being removed from the electoral roll. The House of Lords sought to block the accelerated timetable through a ‘fatal’ motion, but this was narrowly rejected by peers.

Ron showed that because the size of every constituency must be within +/- five per cent of the electoral quota, on 2014 data this would mean a range of 71,985 to 79,563. There is a view, expressed by the now defunct Political and Constitutional Reform Committee, that ‘the allowable variance for the electorate of each constituency from the UK electoral quota should be increased to +/-10%’. This would give the Commissions more flexibility when delineating constituency boundaries. As Ron pointed out, the Commission had encountered problems during the aborted review: in order to fit all constituencies within the +/-5% limits some of those proposed appeared to disregard traditional communities such as Great Grimsby, where the current constituency was split in half in the Commission’s revised recommendations. The MP for this constituency even secured a debate in Westminster Hall in which he passionately argued against such a move.

The final portion of the talk was devoted to the likely consequences of this next review of constituency boundaries. The main conclusion was that there would be a poorer fit with local authority boundaries. To illustrate this point, over half of the proposed 68 constituencies in London will likely be composed of wards from two boroughs. Examples from several cities – such as Birmingham and Leeds – showed that many of the proposed constituencies in the aborted review incorporated wards from two or more separate local authorities because of problems created by the number and size of wards; this could only be obviated, to some extent, if the Boundary Commission for England was prepared – as its counterparts in the other three countries did during the aborted review – to split wards. Tony Bellringer noted that, now that it had the needed maps, the English Commission was prepared to consider that in the upcoming review. Furthermore, the need to meet the size constraint will also lead to what Ron termed ‘orphan wards’, where individual wards are added to a constituency despite having no cultural or historical links to it.

Despite what has been said, the rules governing the next review could yet be changed through primary legislation in parliament. However, this seems unlikely to happen. The final recommendations will need to pass through both Houses of parliament. This is certainly not a foregone conclusion. The slender Conservative majority and the growing disquiet amongst Labour MPs (over the loss of inner city seats as a result of redistribution, as well as fears that the changes could open up the possibility of deselections) will make this a tricky vote for the government to win.

About the speakers

Tony Bellringer is the Secretary to the Boundary Commission for England.

Ron Johnston is Professor of Geography at the University of Bristol. He has written on the subject of electoral geography for over 35 years.

About the authors

Daniel Goldstein and Matthew Rice are Research Volunteers at The Constitution Unit.

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